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  • Lent Reflections (32)

    Today's readings are a rather odd selection...

    Psalm 51:1-12
    Habakkuk 3:2-13
    John 12:1-11

    Still Psalm 51, but now joined by Habbakuk and a wrathful God smiting rivers and mountains trmapling nations, and the tender story of Jesus' being anointed at Bethany from John.  Very odd.

    Scripture can be puzzling, and all too often we skip past the verses or passages that prove enigmatic.  So today I want to play, be it ever so briefly with something the John passage...

    Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
    You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

    John 12:7 -8 NRSV

    You will always have the poor with you... is this so?  There will always be people who have too little means to provide for themselves?  That, no matter how many handouts, how many schemes, how much charitable giving and how much aid work, some people will always have too little, will always be dependent?  Is it really the case that we can never overcome poverty?  Is the chant of 'make poverty history' doomed to failure?

    We tend to read this passage, and probably correctly,  as Jesus saying, this is my moment, and in pouring out the perfume Mary (or any other unnamed woman in similar stories) is acknowledging that.  The opportunities to give to the poor will still be there, but this opportunity is a one off.  So is Jesus maybe speaking somewhat ironically?  The poor will always be with you - you're never ging to really tackle poverty, this is just talk arising from missing the point.  How holy it sounds to say 'the money could have been given to the poor" but you have no more intention of doing that than flying to the moon (or whatever a first century equivalent expression might have been).  Rather than an ontological inevitability, poverty is inevitable because of self-centredness.  That feels preferable, I think, and gives our charitable giving and aid-work at least some sense of hope.

    The poor will always be with yoy.  Why?  Because individually and collectively you will never care enough to make poverty history.  Jesus words do not give us permission to give up and say, well that's just the way it is; instead they challenge us to examine our own lives and see the impact we have on others, especially 'the poor' that nebulous part of humanity of which we do not see ourselves as part.  Lots more I could play around with using the Matthean and Lukan variants of the beatitudes, but I'll leave it there for now; it is Saturday after all.

    The poor will always be with you

    Who are 'the poor' Lord?

    How do we measure poverty?

    And is this just one more trap

    Into which we fall

    In our attmepts at self-justification?


    How do we find the balance, Lord,

    Between giving to the poor

    And spotting the moments

    When something else

    Is more important -

    Can such a judgement ever be made?


    If not ontological inevitability

    But product of human sin and finitude

    Then show me, Lord

    How I can both give to the pour

    And lavish my devotion on you.

  • Cupcakes... Mmmmmm


    One dozen blueberry cheesecake cupcakes.  One dozen carrot cake cupcakes

    To be delivered to the churches' ceilidh in aid of Christian Aid Scotland's Malawi project.

    Why do cupcakes now have double barreled names?

    And why am I baking yummy cakes during Lent when I'm not able to sample them?

    And how many of my male colleagues have been baking this afternoon?

    Ah, questions, questions!!

  • Canon of Scripture - In or Out?

    Today's PAYG employed a reading from the apocrypha, something that Roman Catholics and Eastern Christians value, and, shush, don't tell anyone, is the source of many inscriptions on plaques in Victorian Baptist chapels.  Here is what was read, from Wisdom Chapter 2:1-2; 12 - 20

    For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
    ‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
    and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
    and no one has been known to return from Hades.

    ‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
    because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
    he reproaches us for sins against the law,
    and accuses us of sins against our training.
    He professes to have knowledge of God,
    and calls himself a child of the Lord.
    He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
    the very sight of him is a burden to us,
    because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
    and his ways are strange.
    We are considered by him as something base,
    and he avoids our ways as unclean;
    he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
    and boasts that God is his father.
    Let us see if his words are true,
    and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
    for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
    and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
    Let us test him with insult and torture,
    so that we may find out how gentle he is,
    and make trial of his forbearance.
    Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
    for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’

    So.  Is this divinely inspired writing?  Should it be in the canon of scripture?  Why?  Why not?

    Lots of people do not know how the canon of scripture evolved, how late it was before any of the versions of the Bible were agreed.  Some early Christians wanted to throw out the entire Old Testament, others were dubious about the Gospel of John or the Letter of James.  Most people don't spot the parentheses at the start of John 8 or the three endings offered for the gospel of Mark.  Even less will read the footnotes on large chunks of the OT that point to the absence of complete early manuscripts or the significantly different possible renderings of substantial chunks of text (take a look at footnotes on, for example, Isaiah if you don't believe me).  We just take it as read that this is the stuff God inspired, provided it's in our preferred translation of course, and that's the final word. 

    A comment on another blog I read got me thinking though, the writer posed a question along the lines of, if we were to undertake the task now of forming a canon of scripture, what might be 'in' or 'out'?  What would you include or exclude and why?  It's not an easy task, you have to take books as a whole, I'm not giving the option of a paper doily Bible (tearing out the bits you don't like to make it pretty) or a confetti Bible (collecting the bits you do like, tossing them in the air and seeing how they land).  So, if you reject a book, you reject all of it; if you keep a book you keep all of it.  I wonder what you end up with?  What is lost or gained as a result?

    Or, as an alternative, keeping the Bible as it stands, what would be your list of deutero-canonical books (an alternative name for the apocrypha), a secondary canon, of lower authority than the Bible, but still important to shaping and informing your faith and discipleship.  Why these books?  What emphases are overlooked or consciously excluded?  Why is that?

  • Lent Reflections (31)

    Today's readings...

    Psalm 51:1-12
    Exodus 30:1-10
    Hebrews 4:14—5:4

    At first sight the Exodus reading looks a bit lacking in promise, perhaps, as it begins with the physical description of the altar of incense and the rules for maintaining its purity.  I'll let you into a secret though, as I've got older, I've come to appreciate more the precise measurements and details of these early books of the Bible.  Irrespective of their accuracy, they form a fascinating record of what mattered, and of the care and attention that went into producing the objects employed in worship and ritual.  At around three foot (or one metre) high and eighteen inches (or fifty centimetres) square (GNB measurements) the altar of incense was not terribly big, but it was very important and, by the sounds of things, very beautiful.

    The Hebrews passage builds on the Exodus (hurrah for straight forward links) and speaks of the privilege and responsibility of being High Priest, entrusted to make the sacrifice on the altar of incense.  It notes the fallibility of human priests, men who did their utmost but still sinned, even if 'all' that meant is being incapable of achieving perfection.  Jesus becomes the Great High Priest, in the order of Melchizedek, who has no sin... but I'm getting ahead of myself here (used a bit of Hebrews last Sunday, it's still active in my brain!)

    There is one sentence that stood out for me as I read the Hebrews passage:  "No one chooses for himself the honour of being a high priest" Hebrews 5:4 GNB

    No one chooses to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  No one chooses to be Pope.  No one chooses to take on the figurehead roles that are so very public and so very demanding and so utterly thankless.  And yet, if truth be told, plenty of people do aspire to 'Christian Celebrity'; posts perceived as 'senior' or 'significant' are advertised and candidates invited to apply, with the interviewing process being used as a vehicle for discernment. 

    There is, I feel, a note of caution being sounded there for people, like me, who are naturally quite competitive and who, secretly, quite enjoy being noticed.  Not my will, but Thine, be done...  But beyond that, whether or not we are ambitious, these words speak to us... our role, our calling, whatever it may be, is a privilege and a responsibility.  To be trusted by God to serve God's people, whether understood as vicariously, iconically or diaconally, is utterly mind-blowing.

    I am also drawn back to thinking about the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the decision of Rowan Williams to step away from this role.  I have been deeply saddened that people have felt free to criticise his endeavours, accusing him of not being sufficiently conservative/liberal/radical/dynamic/forceful/whatever.  He did not choose this role.  He didn't reply to an advertisement in the Church Times.  Someone nominated him and the then PM decided he was the one for the job (we'll not stray into how that works out theologically!).  Since then he was worked tirelessly and devotedly to fulfil, the best he can, the thankless task of holding together and guiding forward the 'Mighty Tortoise'* that is the Anglican Communion and, specifically,  the Church of England.  It doesn't matter if we agree with his views or the way he has worked; we have to trust that he was "God's man" for this season.

    No prayer/poem from me today, just a suggestion that we each go away and pray for those entrusted with the public and figure-head roles in our own traditions, and in the organisations of which we are part.  How can we play our part in supporting them in their thankless tasks, irrespective of whether they have sought or chosen the work now entrusted to them; irrespective of whether we agree with the way they work or the views they hold?


    * See here for the parody hymn "Backward Christian Soldiers"

  • Social Media and Preaching?

    An interesting article here (ht Baptist Times news-sweep) but one that leaves me a bit cold, if I'm honest.  I'm all for creative use of technology in the service of God; I am not sure that live tweeting during a church service fits that brief.  I enjoy using images and music and symbols in worship, from time to time use film clips or cartoons but steadfastly refuse to bullet point my sermons (too constraining/inflexible; too much lecture/presentation rather than preaching) and am always slightly concerned at over reliance on technology - if a power cut happens (and they do) what then? 

    My big beef with tweeting or texting during services is that people are not fully engaging with what's going on.  I appreciate they may not be doing so anyway - they may equate sermon with nap time, be planning their shopping list or worry whether or not they switched off/on the oven.  But somehow that feels a bit different.

    I have seen people texting during services - no names, no pack drill, no churches identified (note the use of plural is deliberate) - and it annoys me.  I have no problems with wandering tinies, can cope with rustling sweet papers, am known regularly to swig water myself, have no issue with people who need to move around or do things to alleviate pain or stiffness, I am fine with people taking notes (though might be a bit freaked if I saw someone get out their laptop or ipad so to do!).  And it's not I that demand total stillness and silence.  I just have a suspicion that tweeting and texting may fit in a different category that is less God-centric and more ego-centric.

    Feel free to disagree (I know some of you will :0) )